Beyond the ribbon of asphalt that wends through the landscape, Isabelle sees a man, young and darkly handsome. His arms open in welcome and he smiles, a sweetly amorous smile that makes her heart beat faster. It has been so long since she has seen him, kissed him. Her lips tingle with delicious anticipation.
“Grandmama?” a small voice whispers close by, shattering the vision.
The man evaporates into the soft afternoon light. No! Stay! she thinks, but he fades away.
Isabelle’s hand tightens on the carved wooden cane by her side, and she levers herself upright, cheeks pink with embarrassment. She doesn’t like it when she falls asleep in the car; napping reminds her that she’s old.
“Oui.” She blinks at the little girl, her great-granddaughter, standing beside the open car window. She knows this girl, she recognizes the pigtails, the lively brown eyes. But what is her name? Babette? Blanche? No, no, that isn’t it. Some days it is impossible to remember the right word.
“Mama says the picnic is ready. She says to come eat.”
Whatever this child’s name, she looks just like her mother at the same age. Isabelle smiles at her. “Je viens.” The pigtails bounce as the girl dances away.
Isabelle eases out of the car. A chill passes over her when she looks around. The car is pulled to the side of a stretch of winding road, which brackets the green fields with dark parentheses. An occasional tree punctuates the hillsides curving around. She knows this landscape instantly although she hasn’t been here in decades. She stiffens her spine and looks away, refusing to see.
She follows the dancing girl, her gaze fixed on the child’s exuberance. In the grassy field ahead, a woman and another child — a tow-headed boy— kneel on an outspread blanket.
The family picnic basket, traditional wicker, squats in the middle of the red plaid. Both are old but still serviceable, like Isabelle herself. Grains of sand from their favorite beach cling to the much-repaired basket, along with leaves and grass — an accumulation of nature’s mementos from a lifetime of Sunday picnics.
Isabelle’s trousers make a whisking sound as she walks. She focuses on the small noise, pretending this is just another Sunday, just another picnic site.
The little girl — Brigitte? Bernadette? — pats a small stool resting on one corner of the blanket. “Here, Grandmama! Sit with me!”
“No, I want her to sit with me!” the boy blurts from his corner.
“Jacques, Bella. That’s enough, you two. No arguing. Please sit, Grandmama,” says the woman — her granddaughter Renée — while rummaging deep inside the basket.
Bella? Isabelle feels a thrill of delight — her great-granddaughter is her namesake. How could she forget this?
Jacques sticks out his tongue at his sister. Smiling, Isabelle lowers herself to the embroidered stool, her knees creaking in protest.
Renée unpacks numerous small containers from the basket. Jacques bounces in his corner, as eager as a puppy.
“Doucement, doucement,” Isabelle tries to calm him, “ça viens!” It comes.
Renée offers Isabelle the first filled plate, and they share a tiny smile at the crestfallen look on Jacques’s face.
“I would like some of that … that …” Isabelle searches for the word, “the consommé, s’il te plait.”
“Consommé? Grandmama, we didn’t bring soup.”
“No, no, that’s not what it’s called. Um … in the round box?”
“The cheese? The Camembert?”
“Oui. The cheese.” Isabelle waits for Bella or Jacques. One of them will tease her now — a new tradition of these family picnics, making light of her spotty memory.
“Can I have some consommé too, please, Mama?” Bella asks. She and Jacques giggle.
Isabelle laughs with them. It is amusing how words elude her. Like mischievous children, they hide behind each other and offer up strange replacements. A sign of aging, her doctor has said, nothing to be worried about. He calls it “a memory retrieval error” and reassures her that she isn’t developing dementia. So she laughs at the absurd words, choosing to find humor in her frailty.
Consommé indeed, Isabelle smiles and accepts a slice of Camembert from her granddaughter.
A flicker of movement in a nearby tree pulls her gaze, a pert little squirrel sits on a branch, head cocked as if to say “what are you doing here?” The creature’s pose reminds her where she sits: The place she has refused to remember for decades. The place where she left him. No, the place that had stolen him.
She looks away down at the blanket where Renée slices another wedge of cheese and tucks it onto a plate along with grapes and fresh rounds of bread. The food smells delicious but Isabelle can’t swallow. A lump in her throat, solid and unmoving, won’t allow it.
The curves of the roadway behind her will not be ignored; they push and prod, testing her. The memory she abandoned here inches closer, but it’s not whole, it’s filigreed with empty spaces where Isabelle has deliberately removed the most poignant strands. She pushes them away but they persist in waking up, vying for her attention, wanting to weave back into place and be whole again.
Filaments begin to slip through the barrier she erected so long ago. Thread by thread, detail by detail she remembers and rebuilds the memory; his loving touch, his laughter, his quirky smile, the bounce in his step, the crooked little finger that embarrassed him. Faster and faster the memory grows until the blockage dissolves entirely and he stands before her: her husband, long dead. Dead in a traffic accident on this very road.
She has pushed his memory away, hiding from his absence, unwilling to be without him yet unable to leave him behind.
He stands before her, his little smile promising an afternoon’s pleasure in his company. Today, she has been given a gift of memory from the landscape that took him away in that one terrible moment. She fills her eyes with the sight of him, so young, so exciting.
“I have missed you so much, Jean,” she whispers to his shade. He blows her a kiss and winks mischievously.
“Hmmm? What’s that, Grandmama?” Renée looks up.
“His name was Jean. Your grandfather.” Isabelle is embarrassed that her voice shakes a little when she speaks. After so many years, she should be able to say his name. She feels his breath upon her cheek and closes her eyes to enjoy it.
“My grandfather? You never talk about him.” Renée’s face pales beneath her tan.
“I was just remembering him.” I still love him, Isabelle thinks, smiling at Jean, still smooth-cheeked, still unbearably handsome.
Renée gasps and lurches to her feet, “Oh, Grandmama! I am so sorry! It happened here, didn’t it? I didn’t realize, Maman never told me where. I would never have brought you here if I’d known.”
“It was a long time ago.”
“Is this where Grandpapa died?” Jacques whispers to Bella who shrugs, staring up at Renée now tossing containers into the picnic basket in a jumbled mess.
“I’m so sorry!”
“Ce n’est pas grave. It is okay.”
“Are you sure? We can go somewhere else.” Renée searches Isabelle’s face.
Isabelle turns away from Jean’s memory, sweet as he is to look at, and gazes beyond their car at the dark strip of asphalt. She sighs, a deep exhalation which leaves her trembling.
She hadn’t planned to return, never wanted to see this place again. But here she is, staring at the road she has hated for more than five decades; the road that had taken her beloved Jean away from her and Sophie. Sophie had been so young, she barely remembered her father. Now even Sophie is gone, another loved one taken far too soon.
Staring at the black curves weaving through the tall grass, Isabelle sees it is only a road after all. Jean is not here, he hasn’t been here for a long while. He is in her heart where he has always been. Isabelle hasn’t lost him, not entirely. She’d only hidden him for a while; the way words hid from her now, a trick of her mind.
“It is only a … rivière? Ruban?” She can’t think of the word for the dark surface twisting among the hills.
“It’s a road, Grandmama!”
“Yes, it is only a road. Now, pass me the consommé, s’il te plait.” Isabelle waits for the children’s giggles to perfume the air.
Behind her, Jean laughs too. It’s lovely to hear his laugh again.